Encouraging good sleep habits in our students

Written by: Darren Sayer | Published:
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A good night’s sleep can be a secret weapon for healthier, happier and higher performing students. Darren Sayer looks at how to instil good sleeping habits to support student wellbeing and development

A good night’s sleep has always been seen as vital for keeping people focused and well. But with the ever-increasing pressures of modern life and the introduction of digital distractions to our daily routines, it is important that young people understand the impact of good quality sleep on both their personal and academic lives, and that they are given the tools to build healthy habits for life.

What difference can a good night’s sleep make?

Students aged between 10 and 16 need between nine to nine-and-three-quarters hours of sleep per night (NHS, 2017). Those who get the required amount of sleep benefit from improved memory, increased focus, reduced stress and higher energy levels.

Conversely, regularly sleeping less than seven hours a night can have adverse effects on our mental and physical wellbeing (SecEd, 2019).

It is quite clear to me which of my students have arrived at school ready to learn after a good night’s sleep, as they are the ones answering questions and contributing to my lessons. Comparatively, it is quite clear to see which students have not had enough sleep the night before.

The links between sleep and academic performance have been recognised all over the world. Recently, California signed a new law to push back the start times of most public middle and high schools from 8am to 8:30am with hopes to decrease sleep deprivation and improve attendance, engagement and academic grades (Hauser & Kwai, 2019).

What is the cause of bad sleep habits?

Aside from the worries that have been causing young people to lose sleep for decades (such as relationship troubles, exam stress, negative thoughts or issues with family life), young people are now facing additional distractions to their sleep routines with the introduction of digital devices in their bedrooms.

A recent poll for the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF, 2019) found that 59 per cent of secondary school pupils and 49 per cent of primary school children had used a screen before bed the night before, and the introduction of these screens in children’s bedrooms means that notifications can be disturbing them all through the night.

This lack of sleep or disturbed sleep is what leads to students to wake up feeling grumpy and irritable, and a lot of the time showing up late for school. I recently had a conversation with one of my sixth form students who did not turn up for his morning lesson. He had been going to bed late every night that week and he could not even explain to me why this was.

While a lot of students might be going to bed at a sensible hour, they are not going to sleep – there are endless amounts of conversations, videos, games and notifications keeping them up until the early hours, and they are also checking in on these notifications as soon as they wake up.

How can we build healthy habits for young people?

Many might argue that it is not a teacher’s job to advise students what time to go to bed, but I believe that it is my general responsibility to help instil healthier habits in my students. Helping prevent sleep deprivation is an important part of this work. For example, in an attempt to increase energy levels and to encourage the drinking of water, we have banned energy drinks at our school. There is a common misconception that energy drinks are the remedy for tiredness, when in fact they only provide a short burst of energy and caffeine that has far worse consequences on quality of sleep – we make sure to communicate this to all our students.

I feel it is important to make the connection between a healthier diet and better sleep so that students can take these healthy habits home with them.

More importantly, it is vital to inform young people that there is no “quick-fix” to tiredness, and that the best way to combat a lack of sleep is by building better sleep habits. I have told my students that rather than seeing these habits as a chore, they need to see them as a secret weapon that can improve their mood, make them feel better and help them achieve their goals – whether they are academic or personal.

I have also found it helpful to talk about these issues in tutor groups, as that way it is easier to steer these conversations away from academia.

What teacher support is available?

At my school, we have been using the Public Health England Rise Above for Schools sleep resources to help pupils understand the link between sleep and wellbeing, and to explore how to get better quality sleep. The resources are flexible, easy-to-use and include videos, discussion, peer-to-peer engagement activities and lessons plans. They can also fit into PSHE lessons and support teachers in promoting positive health, wellbeing and resilience among young people aged 10 to 16.

Rise Above tips to improve your sleep

Get your room ready: Making sure your room is clean, you have your bag packed for the next day, your devices switched off and your lights off makes it far easier for you to relax and ensures that your bedroom is exactly what it should be – a room you go to when it is time to sleep.

Limit screen time: Having a cut-off point two hours before you go the bed ensures that your body is not thrown off by the light from your screens and allows you to slowly relax and remove other distractions by the time you go to sleep.

Make a bedtime routine: Whether it is listening to relaxing music or sitting down with a book before bed, you will sleep better with a routine you follow every day. Make sure you find a healthy routine that works for you.

Practise mindfulness: By focusing on the now and not getting weighed down with what has happened or will happen, you can guarantee an improvement in your sleep. If you find yourself too stressed to do this, then talk to someone about your worries and/or write your worries down.

Eat a balanced diet: Everything you eat affects how you sleep, so be sure to not snack too late, avoid caffeine in the evenings and ensure your dinner is healthy and balanced to get your body ready for sleep.

Get active: People sleep significantly better if they take part in physical activity during the day. So, if you do your recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day, you should see an improvement in your sleep quality and your energy levels.

  • Darren Sayer is the lead teacher working under the deputy head at Hanson Academy in Bradford to improve teaching and learning. He has taught PSHE/citizenship as an additional subject alongside business for 25 years. He is working with Public Health England to help review, test and develop the Rise Above for Schools teaching resources.

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